Wednesday, 29 August 2007

Apocalypto (2006) --- Review

Apocalypto brings out what's unique and gripping in Gibson as a director. It's pure adrenaline -- a tremendously exciting chase movie, shot in Mexico, that just happens to be set in ancient Maya with dialogue spoken in Yucatec Maya, with English subtitles. Heck, you lived through Latin and Aramaic in Gibson's Passion of the Christ, so don't be a wussy. Actually, you'd better not be gore-shy, because Apocalypto is one brutal and bloody ride.

The plot, cooked up by Gibson and Farhad Safinia, focuses on Jaguar Paw (Rudy Youngblood), a braveheart if ever there was one. Even women and children are killed when his village is attacked by another tribe. After hiding his pregnant wife and young son in a cave, Jaguar goes on the run experiencing adventures that would give Indiana Jones the screaming meemies. The movie flies by fast enough to cause whiplash. Youngblood, 25, is a Comanche and Cree Indian from Texas, and he holds the screen every treacherous inch of the way, suffering penitential hardships from spears, snakes and tribal rulers intent on removing his heart while it's still beating.

This being Gibson, there's more to the film than the rush. It's impossible not to see parallels to our own cultured civilization, one that knowingly destroys its environment and sends troops to Iraq as human sacrifices. Gibson has made a film of blunt provocation and bruising beauty -- it's breathtaking to watch a jaguar racing in the jungle alongside the man who is named after the beast. Say what you will about Gibson, he's a filmmaker right down to his nerve endings.

Having said all this, I have this to say - the movie's not violent enough. Okay, so it's gruesome, with the mano-a-mano scenes where one bashes the other's head in. But today's audience really is quite used to that, and Mel Gibson knows enough not to push the point - so in fact the sequence of the ransacking of the village was rather tame. You know people are being killed but you don't really see it and you don't hear a lot of bone-crunching sounds. Gibson pushes the violence where it counts - when it gets personal.

You see, people simplistically associate Gibson with violent movies. They think that what he really likes is to make violent movies. Idiots. Watch closely. The one consistent motif is the feeling of desired vengeance it arouses in the audience. Gibson is very good at setting up conflict between characters, but not just any conflict, it's one specific type of conflict - where the bully unreasonably heckles the protagonist and destroys his life around him so very completely, arousing the desire in the audience to want to reach in and choke the bully ... but ah, that's not what movies are supposed to do. Movies are for the protagonist to go through trials, gain his strength - and then launch into what is known as 'payback time'. That's what Gibson has always done in his movies and what he does best.

As for the whole Mayan civilisation thing, well it doesn't really involve too much of the Mayan (as in, the city dwellers) themselves. The thing is I love movies that are set in ancient times. Unfortunately those movies almost don't exist. They don't make them coz the public is too stupid to watch them. Or it's just that I'm weird and unique in a lonely sense, the same way that Alexander was lonely because no one understood him or his vision and ambitions. (I plugged in lonely coz so many people come up with the rebuke "everybody's weird", which is also saying that nobody's weird. Which defeats the point.) Which is why I'm glad Gibson went ahead to make this film, and in a forgotten/dying language as well - he is the only one with the money to do so (big fat money from The Passion Of The Christ, yeah!) and the interest in it as well. The only one. Other directors are hired to make movies like Troy or King Arthur.

Now I'm getting to why I don't think the movie is violent enough. You see, I got really fascinated when watching a documentary/reading an article about the Aztecs (who are different from the Mayans, who are different from the Incans ... but how could you guys tell? I can't), about how they have this sacrificial ritual (annually?). They line up up to 20,000 prisoners captured from neighbouring villages, along the way up the largest ziggurat in the middle of the capital, with the entire population descending into trance as high priests rip out the hearts of the prisoners, drink their blood, and chop their heads off and fling it off the ziggurat, then the body as well. Now, when I imagined that scene, I imagined it with the ziggurat filled with blood from top to bottom, the blood slowly flooding the bottom of the ziggurat, moving through the feet of those closest to the ziggurat, the stench of the blood pouring from the bodies, the flop-flop sound of the bodies being flung off the ziggurat going down the stairs, the squeezing of the half-beating hearts to squish out the blood, the messiness of it all, and the entire population with their eyes going up into their heads. Anyways, archaelogists today try to explain the fall of the Aztecs by the fact that their thirst for prisoners for the sacrifice forced them to ravage village upon village which, understandably, causes undue resentment and eventually the neighbouring tribes co-operated with the impending conquistadors to bring down the Aztecs. But that's beside the point.

The point is, I actually imagined the ziggurat sacrificial scenes, and thought, wow, if I could make a movie like that ... no one would watch it. People would be too pussy to watch it. Heck, I'm scaring myself - it's a really scary sight.

You don't get that in Apocalypto. No. Apocalypto is a movie designed for 21st century audiences - it's too barbaric to stage it as bloody as that, plus people might not believe it. Some might even have thought that Gibson did that purely for violence's sake. The sacrificial sequence in the movie is still scary. It's just that I'm the only person in the world who thought he didn't go far enough.

Now, to the characters - wow, they set it up pretty well. The actor who played the main character, Jaguar Paw (which I'm sure sounds a whole lot better and a whole lot less contrived in the language they speak), is surprisingly charismatic. Even though it's almost entirely a physical role, in the beginning we see him as this pensive person, the only one who goes into his mind, and it takes his father and his wife to call him back. In effect he's the modern hero - one who is physically adept as well as mentally agile. As for the rest of the characters, it's kinda hard for them to screw it up, since it's pretty on-the-nose - they're either trying their very best to kill someone, or trying their very best to survive. Such are the times in (what is apparently) 15th century Central America.

Visually - wow. I'm guessing that is hi-def. Thing is, the whole movie is shot with the Nat Geo look - for the film students, what we have here is pretty deep depth of field. It took a while to get used to it. At any case it is a beautiful film to look at. The costume design and make-up departments deserve kudos as well, they were so well done that it suggests a certain level of complexity in the social structures, plus incredibly detailed textures on the men's bodies.

Now, because this is a Mel Gibson film it still requires suspension of disbelief. Some of the scenes are a little over-the-top - not too much, just a little. But I enjoyed it.

Just this. Please, do yourself a favour. Don't go watch this film when you're in the mood for something more like The Queen, and then come out of the cinema saying the film sucks. Assholes.

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